a wolfe at the door

Elsie de Wolfe (December 20, 1865? – July 12, 1950) was an American actress, interior decorator and a prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society.

image found here

De Wolfe began her professional career in theatre, making her debut as an actress in Sardou’s Thermidor in 1891, playing the rôle of Fabienne. On stage, she was neither a total failure nor a great success; one critic called her “the leading exponent of . . . the peculiar art of wearing good clothes well.”  She became interested in interior decorating as a result of staging plays, and in 1903 she left the stage to launch a career as a decorator.

image found here

She introduced a variety of things, including the cocktail party, comfortable chaise lounges, faux finish treatments, animal prints and delicate writing tables. While Elsie designed the interiors of many prestigious homes she also did opera boxes and a dormitory.

Danish dormitory found here

She continued to design interior spaces for a long list of prestigious clients and wrote several books and articles. During World War I she volunteered as a nurse in France, and it wasn’t until nearly the end of her career that, at the age of 61, she married diplomat Sir Charles Mendl, making front page news in the New York Times.

Shortly after her marriage, she scandalized French diplomatic society when she attended a fancy-dress ball dressed as a Moulin Rouge dancer and made her entrance turning handsprings. A guest chided her: “Elsie, it is wonderful to be able to turn handsprings at your age. But do you think it is in perfect taste for the wife of a diplomat to perform acrobatics in a ballroom?”

unknown Moulin Rouge dancer found here

The Times said that “the intended marriage comes as a great surprise to her friends,” perhaps because since 1892 de Wolfe had been living openly in what many observers accepted as a lesbian relationship. During their nearly 40 years together, Elisabeth Marbury was initially the main support of the couple. Dave Von Drehle speaks of “the willowy De Wolfe and the masculine Marbury… cutting a wide path through Manhattan society. Gossips called them “the Bachelors.” Shortly before the First World War, they both set up house at Versailles with Ann Morgan, heiress to the Pierpont fortune, forming an eccentric menage a trois dubbed the Versailles Triangle. 

Anne Morgan and Anne Dike found here

The parties she gave were always a success as she knew how to hold people’s interest. In 1930, for example, she hatched the idea for “murder parties“, a type of party game that was entirely new. On her appearance, too, she lavished much fervour and fantasy. Her morning exercises were famous. In her 1935 autobiography, de Wolfe wrote that her daily regimen at age 70 included yoga, standing on her head, and walking on her hands.

image found here

Having been at thirty a vaguely plain woman with a marmoset face, Lady Mendl improved her looks throughout the years. She maintained a svelteness of figure throughout her life and introduced pale blue or heliotrope coloured hair. She was also one of the earliest, most successful devotees of facial surgery. In later years there was much speculation about her age, and when she was over eighty Lady Mendl came into her own as a beauty, acquiring an almost mythical look of serenity.

image found here

Published in: on January 26, 2012 at 11:38 am  Comments (56)  
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  1. I love her but I love my own Wolfie more. :)

    • Of course you do sweetie

  2. I mean, I’ve heard of someone with “lemur-like eyes”, but what the heck is a “marmoset face”…?

    • Marmosets are really cute, so I imagine a small face with all the features close together

  3. handsprings at 61? i have a new fitness goal! whee!

    • handsprings at 61? i have a new spectator sport to participate in. whee!!

      (and is Anne Dike the one who invented that moustache/goatee thing? [snicker])

  4. Quite a looker for 80. Looks like she should be the queen or empress of some great country.

    • She was queen of her own domain

  5. i dont want ambitious goals like walking on my hands at 70, but to be healthy enough to do my own things is good.

  6. Murder parties? I wonder if it was the beginning of the kind of parties people have these days where they try to solve a murder mystery…

    • I think that’s what they meant

  7. Still a good looking woman for whenever that last pic was taken but she needs to move around more or the birds might start eating her.

  8. Sir Charles Mendl a grand diplomat, maybe? Take away the Sir Charles bit and simply call him Mendl – kind of like a spanish waiter!

    • I don’t know much about him

  9. Another fascinating post, Nursemyra. It was refreshingly lacking in murder. I truly enjoyed the link to the Danish dormitory, it looks like a very nice place to go to college from.

    • Yeah, refreshingly lacking in murders, that’s what I thought, too. :)
      Also, I’m really enjoying the comments, today – I’ve still got that tickly-bubbly feeling in my tummy from laughing at DaddyP’s. You know, like I’ll laugh again at the slightest provocation?

  10. joan rivers will end the same way.

  11. I clearly need to learn how to do handstands now, so I can impress the crowds at 60! I knew I was already falling behind…

  12. Megan beat me to it! I was just going to say how impressive that sounds… I’ve never been able to turn a handspring.
    My tree-pose is decent, though.
    Until gravity takes over, anyway.

    • Your many and exceptional skills merely run in other directions, SIG. And if I had to choose, I’ll take yours, thanks. :)

      • Aw, shucks!
        Thanks, S.E.! :)

  13. “She introduced a variety of things, including the cocktail party, comfortable chaise lounges, faux finish treatments, animal prints and delicate writing tables.” Good grief, why isn’t Elsie de Wolfe better known? Ah, hang on, I think I might have the answer – she’s not a man.

  14. “You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
    “And your hair has become very white;
    And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
    Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

    “In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
    “I feared it might injure the brain;
    But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
    Why, I do it again and again.”

    “You are old,” said the youth, “As I mentioned before,
    And have grown most uncommonly fat;
    Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door—
    Pray, what is the reason of that?”

    “In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
    “I kept all my limbs very supple
    By the use of this ointment—one shilling the box—
    Allow me to sell you a couple?”

    “You are old,” said the youth, “And your jaws are too weak
    For anything tougher than suet;
    Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—
    Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

    “In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
    And argued each case with my wife;
    And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw,
    Has lasted the rest of my life.”

    “You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
    That your eye was as steady as ever;
    Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose—
    What made you so awfully clever?”

    “I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
    Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
    Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
    Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”

    • HA HA HA HA HA HA!

    • Oh splendid! Haven’t read the entire poem in years! Now SE and I will be smiling all day and folk will wonder why…

  15. I feel so unfit and unhealthy right now. Seriously, I can’t do half of those acrobatic things. ._.

    • I doubt if I could do any of them. I’d rather lie on the chaise lounge and read

  16. “….comfortable chaise lounges…”

    In the UK (and elsewhere I would guess), saying a woman is fond of “comfortable shoes” is an indirect way of suggesting she is a lesbian.

    • I don’t wear high heels……..

  17. In this circle of Elsie and Bessie belong Mercedes d’Acosta and Elizabeth Arden I think. I have read somewhere that Sir Charles (1871-1958) was press attache at the British embassy, so he must have been a well connected man. He seemingly played two small film roles in the late 1940s, one in “Notorious”, appearing as himself.
    I read that they lived in a chateau in Trianon – wonder whether they really had rented the chateau Trianon – it is important for the treaty that was signed there in 1920 – but I doubt.
    Elsie inherited a ton of money after Bessie’s death. Cary Grand mentions her in his biography.

  18. Marmoset faces are really in now. Way more than that mythical look of serenity. Most people are faking that one.

    • Marmoset face? Damn, I’ve been practising my Ferret Face for years!

      • Imagine a marmoset face with a cat’s bum mouth. Now that would really be something.

  19. Some people live very interesting lives out there…

    • “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Henry Thoreau

  20. For “scandalized” read “made everyone green with envy”

    • Envy is a curse

  21. Wait a moment – those are cockatoos!

  22. Are you saying she invented the cocktail party? Now, THAT’S a contribution to mankind!

    Maybe Sir Charles married her because she was living in an open lesbian relationship.

    Can you imagine being among the first to volunteer for plastic surgery? It can’t have gone smoothly.

    • There were some thousands before her who did not volunteer for plastic or restoring surgery, but got the whole package: Soldiers of WWI. Technique and skills were developed and available, one just needs to find a good and specialized surgeon – as it is today.

      • Yes and one of the men who pioneered that surgery was from my home town of Dunedin!!

        As well as restoring the face of Walter Yeo he also performed early sex change operations. Harold Gillies was an amazing man

  23. She sure seemed to introduce a lot of new trends.

    • Quite a talent

  24. Yeah, no murders but the Versailles Triangle sounds intriguing. I wonder how many ships disappeared in those parts?

    • hahahahahahahaha

  25. Introduced the cocktail party? Well in that case we should have an annual de Wolfe day!

    • How about Friday 13 April? that sounds as good a day as any

  26. “Marmoset face” is an unfamiliar term.

  27. If I’m so eccentric, how come I’m not rich?

  28. Fascinating post. Creativity and unique vision are not always appreciated, even if when accompanied by talent. Wealth and social position sometimes help. Wonder what she could have done with access to our current forms of mass media.


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